Ken Williams began mowing lawns as a teenager. Now, he owns a 57-acre nursery and landscaping business in Apalachin, with plants, produce, design services and landscaping crews.
In a recent interview, Williams, owner of W&W Nursery & Landscaping, discussed the challenges of running a small business, the art of gardening and why he’s proud to own “the place along the highway.”
QUESTION: How did W&W Nursery & Landscaping start?
ANSWER: I started mowing lawns at 13 just to make money. If I could push the mower to it, I could mow it. My first summer out of college, I bid a job for Hadco Corporation. They gave me a shot by hiring me and I turned around and invested back into the business. I just kept working. I had worked for another nursery for five years learning the trade.
I had done the landscaping for the previous owner of this farm. One day, I decided to plant a seed. I said, “If you ever want to sell, let me know.” The ground here is river-rich soil. It’s perfect for growing and it has a highway exposure. He accepted, and I moved from my old location on Gaskill Road (in Owego) to this facility in 2002 and opened to the public in 2005.
We’re family here. My nephew, Jeremy, is my operations manager. My wife works with the books. My son works part-time, he’s a nursery hand and does networking. My daughter is here full-time helping on the maintenance side. I never thought I’d see the day I had both of my kids on a job site with me.
We currently have 57 acres, 38 in production. We have 16 employees regularly; at our peak, we have 20. W&W Nursery and Landscaping is a full service nursery and garden center. We have hard goods, plants, mulches, tree shrubs, and we deliver. What sets us apart from the box stores is education and experience. This is all we do, and we grow it. Our product is acclimated; our trees are growing in the ground. That makes a big difference if it’s grown in the Southern Tier. We’re not always force-feeding consumers like the box stores. We grow a variety of trees, not just a few to pick from. We know our business and we can compete. Not to mention, our quality is better at W&W.
Q: How has your business evolved?
A: It all started with landscaping and maintenance. We didn’t like what was coming in from suppliers so we decided to start our own nursery because we wanted to control our own quality. I always knew I wanted to have my own nursery where I could grow my own to make me more competitive for larger projects. Also, I wanted to supply the do-it-yourself market because there’s a demand for good quality. That’s how it evolved.
We’ve had to diversify and be smart. We have to be innovative in order to keep things fresh. It’s not just setting plants out on the gravel or blacktop anymore. We have design & build and we’ve established a u-pick produce area. We grow trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, vegetables and fruit trees, and we have our crews out doing work. It all fits together. After all, gardening is a lifestyle.
Q: What are some of the challenges of doing business here?
A: I started my company in 1988 with just ambition, mowing lawns. I built it. I had some gifts from God along the way, and I knew how to run with it, so I feel I’ve paid my dues. The cost of doing business and the challenges in New York State have so far exceeded when we started. As we’re coming into our 28th year, I’m thankful to be established. If I were a new business, just starting, I wouldn’t do it in this state. Between taxes, utilities, and regulations, costs are getting out of hand. We feel we’re working twice as hard for the same outcome.
In order to overcome some of our challenges, we capitalize on selling to retail and wholesale customers. We’re supplying up the East Coast: municipalities, golf courses, universities, garden centers, and even landscapers. In fact, we have over 300 landscapers on our mailing list. That’s really what’s starting to grow for us.
Q: Do you think the proposed minimum wage hike for employees of the fast-food industry will have an impact on business?
A: Absolutely and for us to a point. People that work for us enjoy this trade. I feel business will either close, move or create self-checkout to eliminate people, which will in turn create more sterile environments. So I ask — is this the state doing this to fix our broken welfare system? The people that work part-time and get assistance now will be at a higher income so they lose assistance? Time will tell.
We’re facing a lot of challenges like all businesses. We’ve diversified. It’s important to count your blessings and keep moving forward.
Q: What steps have you taken to help your business overcome those challenges?
A: I started with a video series in 2010 (Street Smart Gardener TM). It’s one of those ideas that just snowballed. We did it because we wanted the do-it-yourself individuals to feel comfortable about gardening. I’m trying to get younger generations to come in and garden too. We want to show that they can grow a vegetable garden just like anybody else, and we’re here to help. We had to adapt and diversify to bring those people in.
Five years ago is when I decided to start pushing gardening as a lifestyle. We want people to get back outside with nature a little bit so they can slow down and appreciate things more.
We’re willing to invest in ourselves and for our customers to make things easier. We have a full-time social media employee for Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, and our blogs. Social Media is fun because it enables us to more easily connect with customers. We’re also launching our new website sometime in the next few weeks, which will be mobile-friendly and make it easier for our customers to keep up with us.
We also offer virtual imaging for landscape design through our in-house landscape design department. It assists us with estimating so when we know the exact square footage of a property, we know how much of everything you’ll need. If you don’t know plant life, it’s hard to visualize. We’ve always done computer imaging, but we always try to stay fresh and at the forefront of the software that’s available. Now we’re able to let our clients see our vision for their property up close.
Q: What changes are ahead for your business?
A: We’ve really increased our vegetables and fruits. We’re going to line up 1,000 apple trees for a u-pick orchard. We’re doing 10 varieties of tomatoes: half the price of the grocery store, and you can pick it when you want it. This is a new endeavor for us in an effort to diversify what we offer. Staying fresh and moving forward is key. We refuse to get stale and in doing so, we’ve created a destination here.
Yes, we’re “that place along the highway.” I’m thankful to be by the highway. We have 57,000 cars a day that go by. People from all over find us.
Beyond the u-pick produce, we’re going to do hops for the microbreweries. In an effort to keep our employees on the books longer throughout the year, I created an Animated Holiday lighting service to keep them working through the late fall. And we’ve got something new in store for next year, but I think I’ll just let our competitors keep guessing as to what that might be.
Q: What trends do you see in this line of work?
A: Definitely vegetable gardening has become popular. Homes and apartments with raised beds are getting more popular, because it’s simple, anybody can do it and produce good crops in the comfort of their own property.
For what it’s worth, I’d recommend any new gardener to keep it simple. As a society, we’re always racing against the clock, so only take on what you can manage.
The outdoor living room concept has really been good for us. We’ve been doing a lot of fire pits and built-in grills; it’s basically like an extension of the house. People can go out and enjoy it, cook, get some herbs from their garden, pick their own produce and use them immediately.
Q: What’s difficult about your job?
A: This life is physically demanding, and it’s not for everyone. I’m very thankful, and I thank God for everything. I count my blessings for what we have. We’re dealing with more regulations. We worry about ticks, it’s hot, it rains … a lot, and it’s humid. But we’re outside, we get to work in nature and we get to meet a lot of great people. We get 10,000 people coming through here in the spring.
We’re all plant geeks here. We love seeing what’s new, especially all the different plant types, seeing how they’re going to work up here. I love traveling to other nurseries and going to trade shows out west. I’ve learned a lot from my peers. This industry has introduced me to a bunch of great friends and colleagues.
Nobody can predict the future, only the man upstairs. You just work at it. I’m thankful for what we have and where we are. We’re the only place like ours locally. We’re unique.
Q: Why is gardening important?
A: Gardening is an art — The art of expressing a thought with plants. Design is key. You have to be creative. There are a lot of advantages to thoughtful landscaping: storm water runoff, shading for energy, wind blocks for winter winds. Landscaping and gardening is really a necessity, not a luxury. We have a responsibility to protect the planet. It’s important that when you do building that you remember what was there before, so that you can put the proper amount of green space back in to protect the planet. That’s why I really like what I do. I know I am making a difference.
Follow Katie Sullivan on Twitter @ByKatieSullivan.
Business and title: The Street Smart Gardener, President W & W Nursery
Education: environmental design, Broome Community College
Hobbies: golf, musician and gardening
Family: wife, Sandy; son, Ryan; daughter, Aleah
Photo Credit: Andrew Thayer